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After 26 years of marriage, Rick Fleming and his wife divorced in the fall of 2009. The court ordered Fleming to send her $ 2,200 a month for the rest of his life. Her children have grown up, they have both remarried and worked, but he still has to give her 40 percent of his income.
“Divorce shouldn’t be a life sentence,” Fleming said last month at a public hearing before a panel of state senators.
His crusade to change the law – to get rid of permanent alimony and limit judges’ discretion in setting payments – is gaining momentum at the Vermont Statehouse. On March 1, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to set up a task force to propose changes to the law.
“We heard a lot of horror stories,” said Senator Jeanette White (D-Windham), a member of the committee. “I think it’s important to have this task force to look at this.”
Alimony is a court-ordered payment from a former spouse with higher income to a former partner with lower income. Traditionally, this has resulted in divorced husbands paying alimony to their ex-wives. The centuries-old system was designed to prevent inactive women from becoming destitute after separation from their working husbands.
Today any spouse can be sentenced to maintenance. The logic of continuity of maintenance: If one spouse makes sacrifices that advance the other spouse’s career, that person should be paid allowance for those years of benefits in kind. Post divorce payments also help address the fact that job prospects can be slim for older people who are no longer employed.
“There’s no question that it’s out of date – that today’s marriages and lifestyles are much different than they were 50 years ago,” said Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, referring to the state Maintenance Act .
“The perception is that this is a business of rich, white, old men, and it is not,” said Fleming, who is white and is a manager at an oil company.
But according to data from the US Census Bureau, men still make up about 97 percent of the dependents. And not everyone believes that reducing the practice would be in the best interests of women.
“I would hate to take alimony off the table,” said Felicia Kornbluh, a professor at the University of Vermont who specializes in gender, sexuality and women’s studies. She dismisses the policy as out of date, arguing “ignore the fact that we still have economic discrimination” against women.
Deeply personal and sometimes chaotic divorce proceedings are not often openly discussed. But a group of desperate divorces, led by Fleming and his second wife, go public with stories they believe the alimony went wrong. In 2015 they formed a group called Vermont Alimony Reform, which according to Fleming now has 70 members.
“It’s a growing movement across the country,” said Fleming. “Vermont, which is very, very progressive in many ways, is behind the times.”
States like Minnesota, Florida, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arkansas, and Oregon recently changed their maintenance laws or are considering changes.
Massachusetts revised its statute in 2012 and strictly limited maintenance. Payments cease when the payer retires or the receiving spouse has been living with another lover for at least three months. To make the system more consistent, Massachusetts law also provides guidelines for determining alimony based on length of marriage and income differentials.
The Vermont Alimony Reform seeks the same changes in Green Mountain State, which, according to Fleming, has one of the most “archaic” and “draconian” laws in the country. He notes that Vermont is one of only a few states that still allows permanent child support payments.
In making these decisions, Vermont judges take into account the finances of both spouses, the length of their marriage, their age, and their employability. They also take into account the couple’s standard of living. The maintenance should enable the supported person to maintain his or her lifestyle and not just to escape poverty.
The Vermont Alimony Reform seeks to limit payments to what is necessary to support the other spouse – through training programs or education, for example – and not indefinitely. Exceptions would be made for people with disabilities or mental health problems.
“Right now, our system is entitlements – it should be rehabilitative,” Craig Miller told the senators at the public hearing. The Chester resident introduced himself as a former maintenance payer. He said his attorney warned him about his divorce: “You’re a man, you’re a professional and you’ve been married for 15 years. You’re going to be screwed.”
Miller was one of about a dozen people who told stories of financial hardship that evening. However, the committee only heard one side of each account. Nobody on the receiving end of the alimony testified, nor the judges who made the decisions.
Dan Woodcock of West Topsham, who divorced in 2013, told the committee, “I owe hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was a known fact [when the court issued its alimony order]but I’m still paying over $ 100 a day in spousal support. ”
Charlie Morse, a Northfield farmer, said he almost had to sell farm equipment to make an unexpected alimony payment. Eventually, his second wife stepped in to cover the $ 17,000 expense.
Fleming also relies on his second wife, Amy, to make payments to his first. If it wasn’t for Amy, he said, “I would probably live in the back of my car.” At the time of his divorce, he owned a business that he says was on the verge of doom; he later sold it to pay off his debts.
Fleming moved to re-examine a case that went to the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled against him. After spending more than $ 250,000 on alimony and legal fees two years ago, he filed for bankruptcy.
A divorced woman from Essex Junction told the Senate committee, “I am responsible for paying alimony to a man who has emotionally abused me, and every month I have to write this check to him and give him a life I cannot afford can is very difficult. ”
“Obviously, it’s a very personal, emotional issue for anyone involved in the process,” said Chief Administrative Judge Brian Grearson. But, he said, maintenance disputes are rare in Vermont. Of the 2,380 divorce cases that came before the state court last year, only 181 were challenged, according to Grearson. The judiciary doesn’t track why cases have been challenged, he said, but it is unlikely that all 181 are involved in alimony.
Sears said he is aware his committee hears of “runaways” cases – and understands only one side of the story. “Still, they are cause for concern,” he said.
Grearson was reluctant to accept wholesale reform. He said he supported the incorporation of guidelines into the law, but warned the committee against introducing rigid standards that would limit judges’ discretion.
Pricilla Dubé, a longtime divorce attorney in Burlington, agreed that the approach is impractical: “I have people who have moved from other countries to be with their spouse. They don’t even speak the language and then get divorced. I mean how do you consider that with a [formula]? It is not possible.”
Patricia Benelli, attorney and chairperson of the Vermont Bar Association’s Family Law Committee, tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the committee from calling for a full review of the law. “I think if you do that you will open Pandora’s box,” she said.
The endeavor will almost certainly spark a debate about gender roles.
Maintenance reformers say they are trying to modernize patriarchal policies that are now punished for both women and men. Regardless of their motives, however, they must grapple with men’s rights groups advocating the same cause. (Fleming said the Vermont Alimony Reform had no ties to such groups.)
“It’s a difficult subject for feminists,” said Kornbluh, who admits he has mixed feelings about maintenance. She added, “The claim is that [the push for reform] is not intended for dependents or men, and yet it seems clear that maintenance payers, typically men after divorce, would pay less. I would have to believe that is the point, “she said.
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) supports efforts to review Vermont’s laws – with some reservations. “Although gender roles within households have changed dramatically over the past three decades, we still lack equality,” she said. “Study after study has shown that women who work outside the home still do most of the housework and childcare outside of their jobs.”
Kornbluh has concluded that alimony, while imperfect, addresses this persistent injustice: “It’s not a great system and yet it’s the system we have.”
Corrigendum, March 13, 2017: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Dan Woodcock told the committee that he had asked a court three times to reconsider his maintenance. That testimony was actually from another man. The previous version also incorrectly stated where Woodcock lives.